Back in Toronto, the Raptors are the same, but different: Taking the temperature on a team in transition


Before considering what comes next for the Toronto Raptors, one must look at their sojourn in Tampa Bay. Broadly speaking, was the Raptors’ 27-45 record more about misfortune or mismanagement? Before the COVID outbreak and the late-season tank job, was Toronto primed for a playoff push? 

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On Feb. 26, the Raptors were fourth in the East. Their plus-2.3 net rating, which ranked ninth in the league, suggested that they were better than their record. They’d won 10 of 15 games, including matchups with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, and they appeared to have found something with their smallball starting five. 

If you remember how Toronto played during that stretch, you’re at least intrigued by the current iteration of the team. The Raptors don’t have a player taller than 6-foot-9 on the roster, and coach Nick Nurse can throw out lineups in which everybody is at least 6-foot-7. On defense, they will pressure ball-handlers, swarm stars, rotate like crazy, switch a ton, play zone and force turnovers. Toronto wants chaos, and it wants to run.

The Raptors want to run in part because they don’t have the talent they used to. They ranked eighth in halfcourt offense in 2019 and 15th in that category without Kawhi Leonard the next season. Last season, they fell to 20th without Marc Gasol’s passing and Serge Ibaka’s floor spacing. Now that Kyle Lowry is out of the picture, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are the only remaining players who participated in the 2019 Finals. (OG Anunoby was injured and Chris Boucher didn’t play a meaningful postseason minute.)

Toronto’s roster is overflowing with athleticism, length and versatility, but light on playmaking, especially with Siakam still rehabilitating from shoulder surgery. It’s time for VanVleet to run the show and Anunoby to stretch his game. Even in the preseason, it’s clear that the Raptors are much more interesting when rookie Scottie Barnes — tailor-made for the Raptors with an almost 7-foot-3 wingspan and “6-9 PG” in his Instagram bio — is on the floor. Precious Achiuwa, acquired in the Lowry sign-and-trade, has been empowered to shoot 3s and put the ball on the floor. Goran Dragic, also in that deal, will be an important source of offense — for now. 

There are League Pass favorites (Boucher swats 3s!) and curiosities (Dalano Banton, another 6-9 PG!) all over the place. Toronto’s distinct style will make it annoying to play against, particularly if you’re the guy dealing with a box-and-1 on the second night of a back-to-back. In this way the Raptors are returning to their home city the same, but different. They’re younger and wilder, with only a select few core players walking into entrenched roles. How far will their brand of chaos get them in the short term? Well, that depends. There is a freedom inherent in Toronto’s offense, and, if you’re a player trying to establish yourself, that freedom is tantamount to opportunity. Let’s see what these guys can do with it. 

Toronto Raptors roster

Taking the temperature

Raptors believer: This team is going to be a blast. I want Nurse to play everybody on the roster, partially because there is good depth here and partially because it’s fun when the Raptors are going a zillion miles per hour. I’m going to be laughing when they frustrate an opposing superstar and upset a championship contender for the first time. 

Raptors skeptic: I’m not holding my breath on them upsetting a real contender. Look, I get that this franchise’s whole thing is “everybody always overlooks us,” but most rational people see the Raptors as a fringe play-in team for good reason. The East is way better than it was when they were perennially near the top of the standings, and they no longer have the pieces that ensured they’d pile up regular-season wins. We used to go into every season wondering whether or not Toronto’s formula would translate to the playoffs; now I’m wondering how in the world it’s going to score when it can’t run. 

Raptors believer: I knew you’d start with the halfcourt offense! It’s a valid concern, I guess, but it bothers me that nobody talks about, say, opponent turnover percentage this way. It really seems to bother people when teams aren’t awesome in this one particular area, even though the supposedly fatal flaw didn’t end up sinking the 2020 Lakers or 2021 Bucks. Did you know last year’s Kings were 10th in halfcourt offense? Of course you didn’t because they were one of the worst defensive teams of all-time and nothing is more overrated than “bucket-getting.” If the Raptors are elite defensively and in transition — both very possible — then they can surely live with being below average at scoring against a set defense. Besides, they only need a little bit of growth here and there to be better than people anticipate offensively. Siakam quietly improved as a passer last season, VanVleet has been preparing for this role for years and Anunoby has shown some flashes as a creator. 

Raptors skeptic: VanVleet has shot between 50 and 52 percent at the rim in each of his five seasons. Siakam had that blazing start in 2019-20, but just hasn’t been all that efficient since then. I’ve been hearing about this hypothetical Anunoby breakout for years, but am still waiting for him to justify the hype. I think the Raptors are going to need Dragic to do a fair bit for their offense, but I’d be pretty surprised if those other three guys improved to the point where it makes sense for the 35-year-old to stick around past the trade deadline.

Raptors believer: Did you see Barnes hyping Dragic up in pregame introductions? How could he possibly want to be anywhere else? 

Raptors skeptic: Oh, right, Barnes is going to save the Raptors with vibes alone. How could I forget? In all seriousness, though, this is a play-in team at best, right? 

Raptors believer: To return to your earlier point, I actually think Toronto does have a good formula for regular-season wins: a top-tier defense and a decent-enough offense. That might not mean home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs this time, but the bottom half of the East’s playoff picture is pretty messy. Don’t overreact to what happened in Tampa, and don’t dismiss the Raptors’ chances of making the postseason outright. 

Raptors skeptic: I’m hardly reacting to Tampa at all. I’m reacting to a strange offseason in which Toronto paid a whole lot of money to retain Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch, passed up Jalen Suggs for Barnes and has positioned itself to be in the league’s murky middle. This seems like a team that is poised to be more entertaining than good.  

Eye on: Scottie Barnes

Watch Barnes film from summer league and preseason and you’ll say things like:

  • Look at that pass!
  • Whoa, he’s picking up the point guard!
  • Imagine if he can make that shot all the time!

You’ll also probably marvel at his energy. He never stops, not even when he’s supposed to be resting. From the moment he sat down on an NBA bench, he has been perhaps the most active, encouraging spectator in the league.  

Barnes has some attributes that suggest he can be a helpful role player immediately. Toronto drafted him fourth overall, though, because of the attributes that give him a chance to be a star. Before the Raptors’ first preseason game, Nurse said he would make sure to sub Barnes out early and reinsert him with a bench unit, so he could have the ball in his hands. Sure enough, at the end of the first quarter, Barnes was out there with four guys on minimum, non-guaranteed or two-way contracts. By his third preseason game, Toronto was running offense through him on the elbow with other starters on the court. He recorded eight assists in 30 minutes. Where can he be in a few months? 





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